Verbs: Part Three—Person and Number

The indispensable verb. Verbs have the distinction of bearing uniquely heavy responsibility for conveying the meaning of a sentence. Without a verb, there is no action and, usually, no sentence. So important are verbs that they don’t even need the company of other words to create good sentences.

Consider “Sit!” and “Enter!” These are well-formed sentences containing a predicate (the verb) and an implied subject (You) and nothing else. To be fair, it is also technically possible to craft a complete, one-word utterance consisting of a part of speech other than a verb, especially in spoken or written dialogue, but these are not usually standalone sentences. For example, “Really!” and “Baloney!” are complete utterances—but only in context. They depend for at least 50 percent of their meaning on whatever was said in the sentence that preceded them.

One clear indication that “Sit!” and “Enter!” are complete sentences and “Really!” and “Baloney!” are not is that you can diagram the first pair and you can’t diagram the second—unless you are willing to supply a lot—a whole lot—of speculative context from preceding sentences. Consider the following exhibits, in which the unstated, speculative bits are encased in parentheses:





As you can see, it is a routine and simple matter to supply the understood (you) in the first two sentences. However, you have to go quite far out on a limb to supply all the words that may be required to turn “Really!” and “Baloney!” into possible sentences. The sentences I came up with, which I diagrammed above, are:

Do you really expect me to believe that?!  and
What you say is baloney!

But these are a stretch. It’s better to admit that these two one-worders are merely utterances—and quite effective in context—but not actual sentences.

Hauling freight. The freight that verbs must bear in and of themselves usually involves conveying, in addition to the mere action itself, the following qualities of the action:

(1) who is performing the action—which grammarians call person;
(2) how many people or things (i.e., one or more than one) are performing it—called number;
(3) the time when the action is being, has been, or will be performed—called tense;
(4) whether the action is actual or potential—called mood; and
(5) whether the action is active or passive, doing or being done—which is called voice.

These five elements—person, number, tense, mood, and voice—are present at least implicitly with the verb in English, and they are explicitly present within the verb form in many other languages. In this blog post, I will discuss the first two of these: person and number.

Person and number in regular verbs. Verbs must have some means of expressing whether the doer of the action they denote is the speaker (or writer), the listener (or reader), or someone else. This is person. Equally, they must have a way of showing whether there is only one or more than one doer. This is number.

For example, with the present tense of the verb fall, the possibilities are I fall, we fall, you fall, he falls, she falls, it falls, and they fall. Together these forms—verb plus pronoun—convey differences of person and number.

Indicators. So it turns out that if you want to talk about person and number in verbs (and who doesn’t), you have to talk first about another part of speech: pronouns. The pronouns I and we are the singular and plural first-person subject pronouns. The pronoun you is the second-person singular and plural subject pronoun, and the pronouns he, she, and it (singular), and they (plural) are third-person subject pronouns. In English, these personal pronouns are the primary means of showing who is or are performing the action of the verb. They are, in other words, the primary indicators of person and number in verbs. Changes in the form, or morphology, of the verb are, as we will see, secondary—and very rare.

Instead of a pronoun, of course, a noun could be used as the subject of the verb, governing its person and number. We could say, for example, Roger falls, the book falls, or stock prices fall—and in every case the noun tells us the person and number of the verb. As for person, the presence of a noun (as distinct from a pronoun) virtually ensures that the verb will be in the third person. This is because nouns in English do not have person markers; only pronouns do. Nouns are always in the third person. This is not uniformly true of all languages; in Latin, for instance, nouns, in addition to having case and number, can also convey person. The name Marcus, for example, has its own sort of second person, Marce, which is called the vocative case. It means roughly “Yo, Marcus!”

In English, nouns used in direct address, corresponding to the Latin vocative, may appear to be in the second person, as in Roger, shut up! and Death be not proud!, but the real grammatical subjects of these sentences are not Roger and Death, but—once again—the implied you. “Roger, (you) shut up!” and “Death (you) be not proud!”

Simple English persons. English is a determinedly simplifying language, and simplicity characterizes the handling of person and number in verbs. Quite simply, the base form of the verb is used across the vast majority of persons and numbers. In the example we have been using, the form fall is used in five of the six possible persons and numbers in the present tense, and falls in the remaining one (the third person singular). The same form, fall, serves again (with the appropriate helping verb) in all six persons and numbers of the future tense. Fall becomes fell in all persons and numbers of the past tense, falling is used uniformly in the progressive tenses, and fallen is on duty throughout the perfect tenses.

The bottom line is that there is only one change in form that regular English verbs use to indicate a difference in person and number—the –s or –es ending in the third person singular of the present tense. That’s it. There is no other person-indicating change in any of the other tenses.

The slight fee that English has to pay for this simplicity is that a subject pronoun or noun pretty much has to be present with every verb. In this limited sense, English is a wee bit less economical than languages that make the subject implicit in the form of the verb—Spanish, for example, in which only one word, hablo, is needed to say what in English requires two words, I speak. The first person “I” is inherent in the form of the word hablo; it’s the –o ending. He speaks would be habla, we speak would be hablamos, and so on.

In all other ways, English is a lot less profligate in its use of varying word forms than other languages.

Those complex foreigners. In many languages, person and number are indicated by changes in the form of the verb (changes in morphology), not by shifting the burden to other parts of speech, such as pronouns. What is rare in English (i.e., inflection) is ubiquitous in other languages.

Consider Latin. In my blog post of Feb. 5, 2013, entitled “A Preface to the Parts of Speech: The Joys of Weak Inflection,” I listed the 90 different forms that one regular Latin verb could take across all its tenses, moods, and voices. To a modern English speaker, this seems extraordinary, and yet the Romans blabbered away all the time, apparently never realizing that they were speaking an impossibly difficult language.

And the same is true of the speakers of Latin’s romance language successors (and of English’s relative, German, for that matter). In Spanish, for instance, the number of different forms of the regular verb hablar is very substantial (81, not counting the compound forms in which the past participle hablado remains unchanged while the auxiliary verb haber goes through its own changes). In Italian the corresponding number for parlare is 51, in French for parler it’s 48, and for the German sprechen, 28 (again, not counting compound forms using auxiliary verbs). In English we have a total of five forms of the regular verb speak (speak, speaks, speaking, spoke, and spoken). Five.

I should note that English is by no means the least inflected language in the world. As far as I know, Vietnamese, which the U.S. government was kind enough to teach me in 1970, uses only one form for the word speak (nói) through all the tenses. Vietnamese is an uninflected language (called by linguists an isolating language), relying on particles and temporal words to convey the time when someone speaks, spoke, or will speak. I understand that the same is true of other Asian languages.

Still, English is highly economical in the verb inflection department.

Another English economy—the second person. English carries simplification even further in the matter of the second person, in two ways. First, English makes no distinction between singular and plural you, relying on context alone to differentiate the two numbers. Thus we can say, with the Kinks, “Girl, you really got me” in the second person singular, and in the second person plural, with Sally Fields, “Wow, members of the Academy, you really like me!”

Second, English lacks the distinction, available in many other languages, between you (familiar) and you (formal)—in French, the tu/vous distinction; in Spanish, the tu/usted/ustedes/vos distinction; and in German, the du/Sie distinction, for example. Unlike speakers of those languages, we English speakers use the same word whether we are talking to a close relative (“Jimmy, you suck!”) or a complete stranger (“I hope you will hire me for this position, Ms. Hamilton.”).

Improper yousage. However, the first economy—having only one word to cover both the second person singular and plural—is sometimes felt as a lack, a disadvantage. This is why many English speakers have taken the reins in their hands and created a nonstandard but wonderfully useful plural form. In many parts of the southern United States, you all and y’all are used for the plural of you, and in my native Brooklyn and other urban areas of the northern United States, the form youse—formed, quite regularly, by adding an s sound to the singular you—serves as a plural.

It may not be a good idea to use these forms in writing unless you are recording dialogue, but who can deny their utility?

Person and number in irregular verbs. Irregular verbs in English don’t really display a crazy amount of irregularity either. For instance, even irregular verbs like see form the third person singular of the present tense in the usual way, by adding an s to the base form, producing sees. The irregularity of most of these verbs lies only in their past tense forms and past participle forms, which are sometimes presented in three-column lists of their principal parts, with the base or present form in column 1, the past in column 2, and the past participle in column 3.

Immediately below is a sample of such a list with a few common verbs. For lists of the principal parts of the most commonly used irregular verbs, try searching the Web. One good list is at

Principal Parts

Of these verbs, only be shows a comparatively high degree of irregularity, using three forms in the present tense—am, is, and are—and two more in the past—was and were.

The strange case of do and say. Two other verbs—do and say—show a different sort of irregularity: an irregularity not of form, but of pronunciation. These verbs follow the regular pattern for forming the third person singular of the present tense: They add ­–s or –es, depending on the sound with which the root form ends. Thus do becomes does and say becomes says. So far so good.

But you have only to pronounce these two forms and you will see why English can give fits to people who are learning it. How did we ever get the perfectly standard (at least on this side of the Atlantic) pronunciations “duz” and “sez” for these verbs?

The Neighborhood—Part Four

[This is the fourth and final part of a story about the highly ethnic neighborhood–Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn–in which I grew up in the years after the Second World War.]

After my experience with Lauren Schatz, I seemed to develop a taste for ethnicity bending. The next girl but one whom I dated was also ethnically forbidden. The experience was to lead to the last great ethnicity lesson of my youth.

I met her at another Catholic high school’s dance: Holy Cross on 42nd Street, facing a green skyscraper that was then the McGraw-Hill building. She was Rose Lee, an American-born Chinese girl.

Rose and I kind of bumped into each other and started talking and dancing. She was only a little better at both than I was. We were comfortable together. I offered to take her home at the end of the night, which meant a subway to Canal Street and a walk to a brownstone on Oliver Street. She invited me in and I met a family very much like the one in Flower Drum Song: stiff, proper parents, a younger sister of notable good cheer, and a more-American-than-thou younger brother.

The house was opulent, with rugs on rugs, tasseled cloths on the furniture, statues and knickknacks on every table, and many framed pictures and drawings on the walls. I was treated with great politeness by the parents and entertained by the brother in his room while Rose went to change.

After a long time Rose reappeared and we spent some time together in the living room. When we parted at the door about an hour later, we kissed. We arranged to see each other again for a movie.

I knew a thing or two about ethnicity, but my knowledge was mostly confined to European ethnicities, and only a few of those. About Chinese people I knew nothing beyond laundries, restaurants, and firecrackers. But I thought I could sell my mother on a Chinese girl, especially a Catholic one, more successfully than I had sold her on Lauren Schatz.

When I told her about Rose, my mother jumped immediately to marriage and children and the woes we would encounter when we had both. Her reaction was like and unlike the Lauren reaction. She was slamming up against otherness here as there, but her tone of voice revealed far less anger than sadness, as if she foresaw some Madame Butterfly scenario in the misty future, or a life of universal rejection. It was at root a tender reaction and I was touched. We talked on and off about Rose for a few days, and my mother finally came to a “go ahead, but be careful” attitude.

Rose and I dated several times and she even came down to the neighborhood after a few weeks to meet my mom, whom she completely charmed. We spent easy time together in Manhattan, which was as exotic as Europe to a kid from Brooklyn. We rode the ferry, went to the top of the Empire State Building, walked along Fifth Avenue, and browsed bookstores and record shops. At my sophomore dance, Rose made a big hit with my friends and the priests, who were probably just relieved that I had not forced the school to deal with another Jezebel. My friends called her Gypsy, of course, since she was Rose Lee, but that was okay; it was meant well.

I was proud of my parents, proud of myself, proud of the world for accepting Rose. What I hadn’t reckoned on was that ethnicity works in two directions. As Rose and I grew closer, we apparently crossed an ancient, silent line in her parents’ axiomatic system. Rose met me one day at the Rockefeller Center ice rink and I saw tears in her eyes. “We have to stop seeing each other,” she said. “Don’t you like me anymore?” I asked. She smiled a little and said, “Of course I do. But my parents won’t allow us to ‘consider serious relationship,’ as they put it. We have to break up.”

I protested and railed with young logic against ancient attitudes. In simple fact I was insulted. But the more I talked with Rose, the more I realized that there would be no defiance. We were through.

The uses of ethnicity in a city like New York are many. Ethnicity tells you who you are and gives you a firm place to stand. It divides eight million people into manageable sets. It provides guidelines and ready interpretations. It offers sustenance, companions, and understanding without words. And it pulls your neck like a dog chain when you go too far.

I accepted that ethnicity was useful. I saw that it was a necessary shorthand. I understood that it helped people know who was inside and who outside. But all that didn’t make it any easier to accept that I was on the down side of at least one ethnic gradient.

To make a rocket leave the Earth’s atmosphere, you have to get it to fly faster than seven miles per second. This is the escape velocity of the rocket with respect to the atmosphere. After this incident it became my goal to find my own escape velocity with respect to the neighborhood, which I had come to detest, and I achieved that goal—as President Kennedy posthumously achieved his moon goal—before the decade was out.


The Neighborhood—Part Three

[This is the third part of a story about the highly ethnic neighborhood–Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn–in which I grew up in the years after the Second World War.]

Ethnic lines mattered a great deal to the older generation and gradually less to succeeding ones. At first the kids on the schoolyard accepted from their elders the sense that the lines were impermeable for all serious purposes, namely procreation, but eventually Frankie Montaldo and Kathleen Sullivan started dancing closer and closer at the Tuesday night dances in the auditorium until they appeared laminated, and Barney Coyle asked Teresa DiSalvo to go steady and she didn’t even check with anyone before saying yes, and since Frankie and Barney were consecrated elders in our generation, things started to loosen up.

Italian girls really appealed to me at first, and my mother (an Italian married to an Irishman) mostly went along with my obsession, perhaps sensing that my hole card in case she objected to Irish–Italian liaisons was unbeatable: “Well, YOU did it.” But I do remember getting a very oblique warning to the effect (I pieced this together only much later) that in any unbiased measure of sexual precociousness, the Italian of the species—particularly the female—scored several standard deviations higher than the Irish.

As maternal warnings go, this was fairly mild. In fact it was as the kitchen match to the forest fire compared to the warning I received when I announced that I planned to take Lauren Schatz to a big freshman dance at my high school.

Lauren Schatz lived at the other end of 19th Street, the Avenue Y end, the outer limits of my social geography. She lived in the large apartment house on the corner, and consequently was Jewish, but she was in the circle of 19th Street kids to which I also belonged. This roughly age-matched group included exemplars of the three major ethnicities, Irish, Italian, and Jewish, and we all grew up together as friends. After grammar school I saw Lauren infrequently, for now our schools were not merely at different ends of 19th Street, they were actually in different boroughs: Lauren was in the local public high school and I was in a Jesuit high school in Manhattan.

The infrequency of our contacts after grammar school undoubtedly lent spice to the encounters we did have. In fact, it was only during freshman year of high school that I began to view Lauren somewhat differently than other friends I had grown up with, like Bernie Kennedy and Tony Bruno. Not only did Lauren like Little Richard, which set the two of us apart from everyone else on the block regardless of age or national origin, but she also looked really, really good in one particular green polka dot dress that she had suddenly acquired after grammar school. The dress cleverly set off her blazing red hair and also required the use of stockings, which had never before been part of Lauren’s vocabulary. The second time I saw her in that dress I asked her to the freshman dance.

I was not naïve, at least not about ethnicity. I knew I was crossing a line. But I also knew I was eager to see what sort of dress Lauren would wear to a really sophisticated affair like a freshman dance at a Catholic boys’ school. Lauren said yes, as I knew she would. The truth was that I had long suspected that she had a crush on me because, being Jewish, she naturally valued intellect, the one quality of which everyone agreed I had a sufficiency.

Out of ethnic loyalty, my mother could only hint at the dark knowledge that Italian girls possessed in their loins; she had no such reticence about Jewish girls. “Eddie,” she said firmly, “you can’t take a Jewish girl to a nice Catholic dance. Jewish girls are loose.”

Loose was the term of choice at that time for that quality of liveliness that every generation fears in its female young. Lauren was loose. No amount of wheedling about how much I liked Lauren as a friend and how I had known her since first grade and how come her Jewishness was never an issue before could sway my mother from her marrow-deep disapproval. I was pained to my budding soul by the injustice of it. In fact it is to this moment on the green Chinese rug in our living room that I trace the personalization of my previously theoretical civil rights conscience. What my mother was saying was discriminatory. It was unfair. There was no evidence that Lauren was loose; I could only hope. In fury and frustration I remember shouting out to my stony mother’s back as she headed for the kitchen, “For Christ’s sake, mom. The Blessed Mother was a Jewish girl.”

My mother visibly swayed in the hot wind of my heresy. I thought she was going to call a priest. Instead she continued toward the kitchen and began to prepare dinner, silently letting me know that, in the normal way of things, I was to wait for my father to come home.

My father was not exactly what you would call hip, but he was a man and had no doubt experienced a thing or two during his stint in the navy and his many Friday nights at Ryan’s bar. He spoke to me softly in my bedroom that night. We talked about differences and how certain things maybe weren’t fair but were just the way they were, but we also talked about dances and first girlfriends and growing up. When he remarked that Lauren was really developing nicely, I knew I had him and that he would square things with my mother.

As it turned out, my father’s wisdom was in the waiting. The date with Lauren didn’t really work out, although she was a source of great personal pleasure at the dance. Out of some centuries-old welling of ethnic revenge, Lauren looked sensational among the Catholic girls whom my classmates had judiciously brought to the dance. She suggested at one and the same time a brazen red-haired paganism and rightful ownership of the Ark of the Covenant. In her bright red dress, she was flame to the Jesuits’ tallow: they ignited like Nero’s martyrs. Unfortunately she was also too much for me. She danced too well and we had little to say to each other. We never dated again.

[To be concluded]

The Neighborhood—Part Two

[This is the second part of a story about the highly ethnic neighborhood–Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn–in which I grew up in the years after the Second World War.]

In the neighborhood, ethnicity was all—on the block, in the schoolyard, out shopping. Everyone moved along the strands of an enormously intricate web of stereotypes. There was no consciousness of irony, no embarrassment, no apology.

Look. There were two bars on Sheepshead Bay Road, the main shopping avenue, Ryan’s and Clark’s. Both were filled on Friday nights with Irish guys drinking a kind of beer that must have come with brogues packed inside the kegs, for the more they drank—these men who had never been further east than Queens—the more they sounded like the County Cork Board of Commissioners. They became eloquent and soulful, hugely merry and infinitely sad—further ingredients of the brew in the kegs under the bar. But the point is that Ryan’s and Clark’s were the only bars on Sheepshead Bay Road and only Irish guys drank in them. You would never find a Jewish guy in there unless he was doing the books.

Italian men would occasionally drink out, mostly in the backs of restaurants, but they generally preferred to drink at home while watching the fights on TV. In this era, Italian fighters were coming to dominance by routinely beating Irish fighters nearly to death. The Italian men judged this a spectacle worth seeing. Soon they would repent of their smugness when Black fighters began doing the same to Italians, but that is a story for another era.

Italian men sometimes drank beer but preferred home-made wine, which was like breast milk to them and nitroglycerin to outsiders. My Irish-American father got as drunk as he ever got—my mother liked to tell us—on Mr. Pernicone’s home-made red, and my mother would know. She could gauge within a half-percentage point of accuracy the degrees of inebriation that my father achieved. Of course, in this case my father was helped along by his own innocence of wine, which he probably regarded as warm red beer, for he had drunk Mr. Pernicone’s red by the tumblerful.

Jewish men apparently didn’t drink. No Jewish man was ever seen drunk in Sheepshead Bay, and you will find this understandable if you have ever tasted Jewish wine. This fact contributed to their overall exoticism, for Jewish people were different in other ways too. They evidently preferred to rent apartments in large apartment houses, especially ones with benches out front, instead of buying the row houses Catholics were so proud to own. And they must also have insisted on streets with real names because every fifth north-south street in the area had a name instead of a number—Ocean Avenue, Bedford, Nostrand—and much of their frontage was occupied by very large apartment houses filled with Jews.

Jews drank seltzer from large blue bottles that exploded when dropped, and they often wore  black orthopedic shoes that laced up the side. In fact these were called “Jewish shoes” (or less formally, “Jew shoes”), and any honest dictionary would tell you that. Italian men wore distinctive styles too, especially undershirts with thin shoulder straps that showed off their dark skin, tattoos, and muscles, and revealed underarm hair that grew like coat brushes. Some Irish guys, young ones mostly, tried this type of undershirt, but they made a poor showing in comparison, especially in the skin color and underarm hair departments.

Ethnicity was everywhere and everything. It was the medium through which we moved; we questioned it no more than a fish questions water. Through it we knew who we were and who everybody else was. It had a function: It helped us make distinctions. In fact, ethnicity was the only gradient of relevance since we were all on about the same rung of the socioeconomic ladder. The only borders that could be built were ethnic ones, and people need borders. Irish people insisted on being not only Irish, but also not-Jewish, not-Italian, and the same was true of every other ethnic group.

[To be continued]

The Neighborhood—Part One

My neighborhood was Sheepshead Bay, at the south end of Brooklyn just above (proceeding from east to west) Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, and Coney Island. It is nearly as far south as you can go in New York, not counting Staten Island, which at that time no one did. Sheepshead Bay when I was growing up in the 1950s was an express stop on the Brighton Beach line of the BMT; later, when I was attending Fordham in the Bronx, this became the D Train, about which no songs have been written.

The Sheepshead Bay I grew up in was an intensely ethnic neighborhood. Before they had occupations or political affiliations, incomes or social classes, people in the neighborhood had ethnicity. It was stamped all over them and it was one of the first inputs the senses were tuned to collect and interpret.

I recall commenting once when I was in my thirties to a same-age friend from Connecticut that the husband component of a couple we had just met seemed pretty sullen for an Irishman. “How do you know he’s Irish?” she asked. I  was entirely surprised. Choosing only the most defensible indicator among the probably two dozen that I had subliminally noted, I answered, “With a name like Connelly, I doubt he celebrates Hanukkah.” My friend continued to surprise me. “Is Connelly an Irish name?” she asked.

No answer emerged from my mouth, which must have looked like the Holland Tunnel. The fact is that no one in my neighborhood would have been excused for asking that question beyond about age nine. In some neighborhoods around the world, I am sure, you have to know by that age what each fork is for, or the details of clothing and posture that mark an undercover cop, or the names and uses of trees and plants, or under which sort of sand water can be found, but in my neighborhood it was which name went with which ethnicity. Along with a related body of knowledge about skin shades and marks, hair textures and colors, blood vessels in the nasal and ocular areas, body shapes and sizes, foot configurations, and vocal accents, among other things, ethnic categorization by surname was a knowing acquired—like Chomsky’s language organ—rather than learned, absorbed rather than studied.

In the postwar period, Sheepshead Bay was already settled but primed for a new kind of growth spurt. The blocks of houses had all been there since the beginning of the century: two-story brick row houses anchored on either end and several points midway by three- and four-story apartment houses. The whole formed a grid comprising streets with serviceable names. We lived on 19th Street and Avenue Z, the second house in from Z, next to the corner apartment house in which mostly Jews lived.

If you are wondering what happened after Avenue Z, I am sorry to report that the street-naming people did not have the fortitude to proceed to Avenue AA or A Prime, deterred no doubt by the petitions of postal clerks. After Avenue Z came “proper” names—Jerome Avenue, Voorhees Avenue—not even alphabetical.

People in the neighborhood had been moving upward since they arrived. They had escaped from the rats and landlords of lower Manhattan along the BMT refugee route, a subway which in this part of Brooklyn was elevated, perhaps symbolically. Jobs were of the gas company, electric company, civil service sort: nouveau white collar, but short-sleeved in summer.

Everyone seemed to be of an ethnicity associated with one of the spicy religions. If there were Protestants, they were virtually invisible. By far the dominant ethnicities were, in alphabetical order, Irish, Italian, and Jewish. A large Catholic church occupied Ocean Avenue (which should of course have been 20th Street) from Avenue Z to Jerome Avenue. A pointedly less large synagogue held down the diagonally opposite corner. Business in both was thriving. No one was ever seen going into or coming out of the Methodist church a further block south on Ocean Avenue.

Our Catholic school, St. Mark’s, was being expanded when I was a kid. St. Mark’s took in nearly all the Irish and Italian kids. The public school on Avenue Y, P.S. 254, was for the Jewish kids, the rumored Protestant kids, and the Irish and Italian kids who either couldn’t afford, or had been thrown out of, the Catholic school.

It was fairly easy to be thrown out of St. Mark’s. All you had to do was be very slow, behind on your tuition, or an incorrigible behavior problem, and you were sitting in P.S. 254 the very next day. This was, I think, official Vatican policy, promulgated in an encyclical with a name like De studentibus expellandis, and it was wise and shrewd if not particularly merciful. From the point of view of the Catholic school, it was an elegant way to realize two distinct benefits. First, it pruned the Catholic student body of rotten apples so the surviving Irish and Italian kids could get down to the business of getting ahead. And second, the blighted Catholic kids in the public school would slow down the Jewish kids, who were disturbingly capable.

[To be continued]

Verbs: Part Two—Transitive and Intransitive Uses of Verbs

Transitive and intransitive uses of verbs. Rather than speaking of transitive and intransitive verbs, which would erroneously imply that the quality of transitivity or intransitivity is inherent in the verb, it is more precise to distinguish between transitive and intransitive uses of verbs in sentences or clauses. Then the distinction becomes easy: When a verb has a direct object complement, it is being used transitively; when it does not have a direct object complement, it is being used intransitively.

Time out for an explanation of complements. Here’s a definition:

A complement is a word, phrase, or clause that completes the action of a verb.

A direct object is only one type of complement; the other major types are the predicate noun, predicate adjective, and prepositional complement. The latter three are normally used to complete the action of verbs that are used intransitively.

Transitivity. When a verb is used transitively, the action that the verb describes “moves through” the verb from the subject of the verb to its direct object. The word transitive contains the sense of moving through in its etymology: It comes from two Latin words, meaning “to go across.”

Take a look at these examples:

  1. The verb hit in the sentence The car hit the bus is used transitively: The action of hitting moves from the car to the bus.
  2. Similarly, the sentence The young woman caught three fish but threw all of them back into the river contains two verbs that are used transitively, caught and threw. The woman caught fish, and the woman threw them back.
  3. Finally, in the sentence The woman loves fishing but refuses to kill any fish, we have two verbs used transitively (loves and refuses), one verbal (to kill, an infinitive showing its verb aspect) used transitively, and three direct objects: fishing (another verbal, this one a gerund), to kill (an infinitive showing its noun aspect), and fish (the object of to kill).

The following are sentence diagrams that clarify the relationship among subjects, predicates, and direct objects in these three sentences.

Sentence 1:
Car bus woman fish

Sentence 2:
woman caught fish 

Sentence 3:
woman loves fishing

Fun fact: By diagramming convention (I think it was held in Vienna in 1904), the transitive nature of the verbs is indicated by the short vertical lines between the verbs and the words that are their direct objects. Lines that do not cross the horizontal are placed between verbs and their objects; lines that cross the horizontal, on the other hand, are placed between subjects and their verbs.

Intransitivity. By contrast, when a verb is used intransitively, the action encapsulated in the subject + verb combination is complete. Simply, the subject does something—not to someone or something else, just does something. An example is The boy slept on the sofa all night. The verb slept has no direct object because sleeping is all that is happening. The remaining words tell us where the sleeping took place and for how long (i.e., they are used adverbially), but they add no more to the action of sleeping than is already contained in the verb.

Boy slept

Usually transitive verbs. While it is dangerous to call any verb transitive or intransitive, as if transitivity were a property inherent in the verb rather than in its use in a sentence, some verbs, particularly action verbs, yearn to be used transitively. Without objects, they are like lost souls; the direct object fulfills them. Consider the following clauses:

The man hit
My uncle closed
My sister broke

Our natural reaction is to want more from each of them; they feel incomplete. What we want is a direct object.

The man hit the ball.
My uncle closed the door.
My sister broke the window.

Usually intransitive verbs. Other verbs are entirely comfortable without objects. Examples of such verbs are come, go, arrive, swim, live, and die, and there are many others. Typically, these are intransitive verbs, appearing in sentences such as these:

The plane arrived two hours later than scheduled.
My mother swims in the pool at the Y every morning.
My cousin still lives in Brooklyn.

Muddying the waters. However, there is a lot of crossover between transitivity and intransitivity at the level of the individual verb. Many usually transitive verbs can be used intransitively, for example. Consider these sentences, using the same verbs that were transitive just a minute ago (hit, close, and break) in the sentences cited about three inches above:

The boxer hits better with each fight.
The store closed unusually early last Thursday.
My sister remained stoical for two days, but in the end she broke.

In these three sentences, our normally transitive verbs are used intransitively.

And sometimes the opposite occurs: Even insistently intransitive verbs sometimes take direct objects—sort of. Specifically, many such verbs take what are called cognate objects, defined as a direct object complement that has the same linguistic root as the verb that governs it. Consider these fairly formulaic sentences:

The challenger hoped that he had fought the good fight.
Abraham Lincoln lived life to the fullest.
My aunt often prayed that she would die a happy death.
My daughter always slept the sleep of the just.

Each of these sentences seemingly contains a verb + cognate object combination. All are examples of what may be called pleonasm, tautology, or redundancy, in that they contain verbs and objects that are cognates: fought/fight, lived/life, die/death, and slept/sleep.

However, there is a subtle difference between the first sentence and the other three. The verb fight is as often transitive as intransitive; that is, it often takes genuinely direct objects, not just cognate objects. You can fight intransitively (as in He fought proudly but lost), but you can also fight any number of things, all of which are proper direct objects. You can, for instance, fight an opponent, fight depression, fight crime, fight discrimination, fight the flu, and so on.

On the other hand, you can’t live, die, or sleep very many other things than a life, a death, or a sleep. When you say someone lived a good life, or lives life to the fullest, you are not really adding much verbal information to the basic word live. This is because live has a deeply intransitive meaningand so do its companions die and sleep.

We sense that the cognate object that may follow a usually intransitive verb is grammatically different from a direct object after a transitive verb, even though the cognate object resembles a direct object in all other ways, including the way it would be depicted in a sentence diagram.

This is also true of other expressions containing cognate objects, including those in such expressions as laugh a hearty laugh; dream a little dream of me; walk the walk, talk the talk; sing a sad song; and dance a merry dance.

Linking verbs. In English there are a number of verbs that, when used intransitively, serve a linking function between the subject of the sentence and a noun or adjective complement. In other words, they set up an equivalency between the subject and the complement. Such verbs are therefore called linking verbs. They have also been called copula verbs and copulative verbs.

The simplest example is the verb be, as in the sentence John is a bore. The sentence states that there is an equivalency between a man named John and the type of person we call a bore. Note that we could as easily have used an adjective after the verb, as in John is boring.

When we diagram these sentences, we depict the equivalency by tilting the line between the verb and the complement from the vertical (which would indicate the presence of a direct object) to a 45-degree slant “pointing” from the complement back to the subject of the sentence. The complement in such sentences is called a predicate noun (bore) or a predicate adjective (boring).

 John bore

 John boring

In addition to be, other verbs that sometimes or always serve a linking function include appear, become, feel, get, grow, look, prove, remain, seem, smell, sound, stay, taste, and turn. You may have noticed that many of the verbs on this list can also be used transitively. The two lists below show examples of the two kinds of use.

Verbs used intransitively as linking:                   Verbs used transitively, with different meaning:
I was happy.

Aunt Lucia appeared sad.
I am becoming weary.                                                    Moonlight becomes you.
I feel pretty.                                                                        I feel the tomatoes to test their ripeness.
I am getting tired.                                                             I am getting a new tire for my car.
Atash is growing tiresome.                                           Atash is growing potatoes in the garden.
Robert looks angry.
This math problem may prove hard.                           Nafari proved his honesty.
I remain unconvinced.
He seems a complete fool.
Beatrice smells lovely this morning.                           Beatrice smells the fish before buying them.
Miguel sounds grumpy.                                                 Miguel sounds the gong for dinner.
I will stay faithful to you always.                                    Bill stayed his hand with difficulty.
This tastes funny.                                                           The cook tasted the stew while cooking it.
The banana is turning brown.                                     James turned the plant toward the sun.

 Auxiliary verbs. One last important type of verb is the auxiliary or helping verb. These are common verbs that serve an auxiliary function when used with other verbs. They include do, be, have, can, will, want, and a few others. In general, these verbs are used in English instead of inflected endings to signal important changes in meaning that verbs undergo. We will see more of these verbs in the next few posts when we discuss the tenses, moods, and voices of verbs.

Verbs: An Introduction

Run, jump, tumble, shout
paint, write, dance, sing
Is, was, were
is, was, were
Strive, struggle, laugh, weep
Ask, push, scream, love
Is, was, were
is, was, were
Dream, wake, give, share
touch, taste, explore, grow
what a difference
a verb makes. 
            Amy Henry, 1999

Verbs do indeed make a difference: Without verbs we would be powerless to describe the actions we witness or plan, the deeds we have done or propose to do, our thoughts, our memories. It is impossible to imagine a human language without verbs. While some of the earliest specimens of written language that we have found are verbless catalogs of possessions, taxes owed and collected, and records of crops, cattle, and other commodities, the real languages that people spoke—at the same time as officials made those bare written records—were rich with verbs. Even the earliest cave paintings are, after all, pictures of verbs: hunting, meeting, fishing, feasting, dancing.

Verbs in any language are where the action is. As the poem above observes, verbs run, jump, tumble, shout, paint, write, dance, and sing. They strive, struggle, laugh, weep, ask, push, scream, and love; and they dream, wake, give, share, touch, taste, explore, and grow. They excite, surprise, terrify, calm, force, persuade, anger, inflame, impassion, and soothe. They hurt, wound, heal, and cure. They frighten, enchant, and seduce, and they fuck, love, hate, betray, trick, kill, and die. They think, conceive, imagine, feel, regret, disgust, excite, pretend, mislead, appear, suspect, hint, suggest, and insist.

An introduction to verbs. Let me pause at this point and offer a fairly standard definition of a verb:

A verb is a word or phrase that denotes an action, occurrence, or state of being.

Clearly, action verbs are words like hit, kick, run, and stroke; they are words like those in the first two lines of the poem above. Occurrence verbs include occur, happen, appear, and become, and state of being verbs include be, exist, stand, rest, and the like. The state of being verbs often serve as linking verbs, which we will discuss later.

Verbs as superheroes. Verbs are wonderful lexical units, but a mythology has grown up around them, usually at the expense of other parts of speech. The point generally made is that verbs are dynamic, vivid, imaginative, persuasive, and potent, while other parts of speech are lifeless. Many self-help guides to improving the [choose one] persuasiveness/marketing ability/power/interest of your writing suggest that you dump all your [choose one] nouns/adjectives/adverbs and plug in an appropriately aggressive verb. The result is guaranteed to boost the testosterone of your writing.

Consider the quotations below, in which verbs are depicted as that muscular guy on the beach who kicks sand into the face of the skinny noun in the baggy swim trunks. Poor Mr. Noun looks like he’s ready to cough up $19.95 for a self-improvement system which, if used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care, will double his size and vigor, presumably by turning him into a verb.

God is a verb, not a noun. (Buckminster Fuller)

Marriage is not a noun; it’s a verb. It isn’t something you get. It’s something you do. It’s the way you love your partner every day. (Barbara de Angelis)

I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun. (Yoko Ono)

I think we all do heroic things, but hero is not a noun, it’s a verb. (Robert Downey, Jr.)

Theater is a verb before it is a noun, an act before it is a place. ( Martha Graham)

Take that, Mr. Noun. Better dig out that wallet.

Nouns’ fellow travelers. Nor are nouns alone in being made to feel inferior. According to many blogs on the Web, verbs also kick ass when they’re pitted against adverbs and adjectives.

For instance, an advice blog for people who want to write screenplays offers this prescription: “When you’re writing a script you need to communicate effectively, visually and economically. One of the best ways to do this is to minimize the use of adjectives and replace them with strong verbs whenever possible…. Instead of saying ‘quickly runs’ say ‘races’ or instead of saying ‘enters through the door’ say ‘barges through the door.’ (From [Note: Ignore the fact that the examples have nothing to do with adjectives; the point is that verbs rule.]

Similar advice can serve business people well, according to at least one marketing blog  ( The blog quotes the managing director of admissions for the MBA program at Harvard on letters of recommendation that she has received: The best recommendations have a lot of verbs. They say, ‘She did this,’ versus adjectives that simply describe you.”

The article continues: “There are multiple reasons to choose verbs over adjectives. First, adjectives on their own don’t say all that much and are easy to throw in without real justification. Describing a candidate as ‘dedicated, focused, and creative’ is a quick way to satisfy the need for a favorable comment and get the recommendation on its way…. Action verbs force the writer to get specific—‘created a series of ads,’ ‘led a team of engineers,’ ‘worked through a holiday,’ and so on require actual examples of the behaviors or characteristics in question…. These specifics will increase the credibility of the copy, in addition to providing more information than when the adjective-driven shortcut is taken.”

One more example, this one from Sarrah Hakim, who has a blog on writing at Offering an “extra writing tip,” Ms. Hakim advises, “Avoid adverbs. Seriously. When you write, instead of sticking in a weak verb plus an adverb, put in one strong verb.” Instead of She walked quickly, Ms. Hakim suggests She strode. Instead of He spoke loudly, the suggestion is He yelled. She continues: “Adverbs clutter up the text. Strong verbs are clean, save space, and make your writing sound a lot more fluent. Use them!” (From

These are actually valid points, and I don’t mean only to lampoon them. Verbs are indeed potent and writers can learn to use them effectively to improve their writing. My hesitation about advice of this sort is that it is simplistic. Dr. Grammarius’s take: Consider such advice carefully and take it into account, but don’t apply any of it mechanistically. If you do, you risk turning your language into a machine of war. I call this the General Patton approach to verbs.

The General Patton approach to verbs. Verbs are often touted as the most useful—the most strategic—of words. If you have built up reserves of well-muscled verbs and are ready to deploy them at the first sign of weakness, they will make your writing more effective. Viewed this way, verbs are aggressive little bastards. They build bodies twelve ways. They put a tiger in your tank. They put spring in your step. They’re lexical Viagra.

There is an underlying truth in this approach to word choice—verbs can be highly expressive—but honestly, the advice that you receive from some sources is absurdly simplistic.

Consider the plethora of suggestions that populate the Web for building up your résumé by using “action verbs” and “power verbs.” It’s a snap: You can easily make your résumé crackle and pop (Disclosure: Dr. Grammarius is not above a Rice Krispies product placement) just by swapping out a few dull verbs for their more dynamic, punchier synonyms.

Okay. Let’s see. All I have to do to get a good job is write about how, in my most recent position, I pummeled my assignments into submission, wrangled my staff into shouldering the hawser of achievement, assaulted my to-do list at each day’s dawning, tore into my weekly objectives and devoured my departmental goals, seduced or vanquished my supervisors, and drove my organization to a frenzy of pillage and conquest over its corporate foes. Great stuff! Reads like a crappy novel.

But, sadly, the actual “power-up” advice on the Web just isn’t as exciting as you might think.

The power verbs that most of these résumé-improving advisers suggest for spicing up your résumé are—no kidding—words like administered, evaluated, developed, prioritized, researched, strategized, delegated, labored, motivated, visualized, and empowered. Can’t you hear those résumés popping?

Back to basics. Let’s admit that verbs can enliven your writing and speaking; they certainly can. But let’s not accept any easy recipes for using verbs in this way. I’ll bet you can figure out for yourself how to choose the best words for your writing once you have control over the basics of verbs and all the other parts of speech—once you feel you own them.

One of the underlying purposes of this blog is to help you understand the language you use and have available to use, to encourage you to inspect sentences by lifting their hoods and looking inside. Then and only then, I believe, will you accept this truth: You are the driver of your language; your language is yours as well as everybody else’s. You have a responsibility to value it and use it in a way that others can understand, but you have the right to use it in ways that you find satisfying and pleasing. My intent is to show you how your language works; then you will be free to use—or break—the “rules” of language any way you intend, as long as you understand what you are doing.

Why I like verbs. What makes verbs most interesting to me as a writer and grammar geek is their infinite variety, their shades of meaning, their versatility, their ability to cover every nuance of feeling, thinking, being, and doing.

What is also interesting to me as a collector of grammatical arcana is that verbs have a greater number of abstruse lexical and linguistic concepts and terms associated with them than any other part of speech—way more! Grammarians and linguists through the ages have invented an arsenal of words to describe exactly what verbs do in a sentence and how they do it. Some of the words are cool, and some are merely wonky. “Cool” and “wonky,” by the way, are technical terms.

Let’s all play “Cool vs. Wonky.” For example, it is cool—and useful—to know that verbs may be transitive or intransitive; it is wonky to understand the distinction among monotransitive, ditransitive, and ambitransitive verbs. What’s more, verbs have aspect (of the perfective and imperfective flavors)—and knowing this is clearly wonky rather than cool for everyday users of English. And it is way beyond cool, and nearly surpasses wonky, to understand a property of verbs that linguists call valency—which is a category that subsumes transitivity and intransitivity. Dr. Grammarius loves these words, but he will have no truck with them here.

However exciting and useful such terminology may be to linguists, it is far too technical for an armchair linguist (or to use a power word, nonlinguist) like Dr. Grammarius. I will be content to discuss what I consider to be the most useful distinctions within verbs in English, and the most traditional and practical for everyday writers and readers of that and other languages.

I will talk about the transitive/intransitive distinction, the category of intransitive verbs called linking verbs, and the traditional categories into which verbs fall within the context of the sentence: person, number, tense, mood, and voice. This will be more than enough: Cool, but not wonky.

We’ll begin with the transitive/intransitive distinction in the next post.


[As I post this blog entry, a new pope, Francis I, has just been elected. For the past month, the news media have been full of stories featuring the College of Cardinals, and pictures of these ornately and ceremonially vested men have dominated the coverage. Watching this prompted me to post this story about one aspect of my youth as an altar boy in the Catholic church.]

It is an early October morning, dark inside and outside the church. The sexton has already unlocked the side door and retired to his apartment. He has also turned on lights in both sacristies, the altar boys’ sacristy off the right, or epistle, side of the altar and the priests’ sacristy, or vestiary, off the gospel side.

I robe myself quickly in the black cassock and white surplice I keep on a wooden hanger in my locker. This is not one of the two seasons—Christmas and Easter—that call for different colors; nor will the mass be a solemn celebration requiring the large silk bow tie that so many altar boys find it impossible to tie correctly.

I have several tasks this morning before the 6:30 mass for which I will be the altar boy. I enjoy being alone in the dark church with my responsibilities; usually two altar boys serve each mass, but Stephen LaGrasse, my size-matched partner, has a cold and cannot make it. This does not cause a problem: It is no harder to serve mass alone than with a partner. I believe the motivation behind the partner system is largely aesthetic.

I open the gray switch box on the wall outside the vestiary. I have learned the switches well; each switch controls one of the large, ornate lamps that hang on long chains over the side and middle aisles, or one of the more recently installed spotlights high up in the ceiling. I light every second lamp down the side aisles and every lamp in the middle aisle. I don’t think there is a need for the brighter spotlights and so I leave them dark. I don’t really like the spotlights.

Next are the candles. I light two candles on the main altar, one on each side, using the long brass taper. The season is Pentecost, not Easter, so there will be no paschal candle to light during the mass. Many altar boys find it hard to light the candles, and nearly all find it just about impossible to light the paschal candle. I have learned how to light candles, even the paschal candle. I remember the first time I lit it.

The paschal candle is large and separate; it stands alone on the top step of the altar, left side. Its large brass stand is not a permanent fixture; it is brought out of storage and set up only for Sunday masses during the Easter season.

I first encountered the candle when I was learning to be an altar boy in fifth grade. The way you learned to be an altar boy was intense instruction, memorization of the Latin, practice with the bells and movements, and observation of experienced altar boys.

To aid observation, Fr. Lahey, the director of the altar boys, used the dummy system. For a while during your altar boy novitiate you would serve as one of two dummies at Sunday masses. Instead of two altar boys, four would be in attendance. The two dummies would kneel and stand appropriately—nothing more—on the sides of the altar. Their job was to watch.

As the seasons rolled around toward Easter, the buzz among the novice altar boys was the paschal candle. Unlike other candles, it had to be lit during the mass, with everyone watching, not before mass as the parishioners trickled in. As dummies, we watched as seasoned altar boys spent embarrassed minutes on the top step of the altar trying desperately to light the candle. Their anxiety rolled with sweat down their collars. Some had to give up and hand the taper to their partner; others kept at it but took a long time. I watched and made theories.

One Sunday before mass, John Halloran, an eighth grader, was doing odds and evens with his partner over who would light the paschal candle that day. The loser would get the job. I was listening and watching, dummy-like. Just as John lost the contest, I was inspired to volunteer for the job. John noticed me for the first time ever, smiled momentarily, and agreed to let me—three years his junior—give it a try.

When the time came, I abandoned my dummy position on the right side of the altar, got the taper from its place near the cruets of wine and water, walked across the front of the altar, genuflected in the center, and mounted the steps diagonally toward the candle. This was the correct, Fr. Lahey-approved trajectory to follow. I lit the taper itself from one of the altar candles and then turned and applied it to the tall paschal candle, arms high.

I was not overeager; part of my theory about the candle was that its thick beeswax had to be melted away so that the taper’s flame could find the candle wick. Another aspect of the theory was that the angle of approach had to be shallow, which meant holding the end of the taper as high as possible. My two conjectures bore painful but necessary consequences. My arms were almost at the yielding point when I removed the taper hopefully. Before God, the priest, the parishioners, and my three fellow professionals, a flame grew at the tip of the paschal candle. From that day, I became the font of lore for paschal candle lighting among the altar boy community, young and old.

Today, for this regular mass, I finish lighting the six plain altar candles, return the taper to its place, and walk to the vestiary. I learn from the weekly schedule that Fr. Boylan will be serving this 6:30 mass. I fill the cruets with water from the special sink in the vestiary and with wine—for Fr. Boylan a Sauterne, and only a little—from the small refrigerator near the sink. I take the cruets to their table in the alcove off the right side of the altar.

I return to the vestiary and see that everything is in order. This room is always thick with bronze light and dusky smells. Two plain stained glass windows illuminate the vestiary in full daylight, and a high amber chandelier supplements the windows when, as now, their light is insufficient. It is just 6:15 and the chandelier provides all the light.

I can hear glassware and china from the rectory, which is along a brown corridor and up six steps. The only smell in the vestiary is the bronze odor of incense that is always present—no coffee or eggs. Fr. Boylan will be taking only water this morning. It is years before the Second Vatican Council, which made some consumption of liquids, such as morning coffee, permissible an hour before communion.

In this room I feel good. I am excited to be up this early in the morning and in charge of important things. I love my vestments, the smells, the tints, the expectancy. What I have to do this morning has been done for ages, is done now, will always be done.

Fr. Boylan joins me at last. We say our good mornings and he walks to the dressing table, a long oak platform with drawers below and cabinets above. There is no mirror anywhere in the vestiary. He opens a long wide drawer, removes his vestments, and lays them on the table. The color for this season, Pentecost, is green, for hope.

Fr. Boylan genuflects before the crucifix that hangs above the cabinets and begins. He will dress in silence; my job is to be one step ahead of him and to join his silence. The first garment he will put on is the amice, a white cotton square the size of a dinner napkin, with long sashes for tying. He takes it up, touches its hem to his head, lifts it over and lays it across his shoulders. He crosses the sashes in front and brings them around behind his back. I take them from his hands, cross them behind his back, and hand them back to him so he can tie them in front. While he is tying, I bunch up the back of the alb, a long filmy cotton gown that will turn him white from neck to ankle, and step away from the table. He takes up the alb and slips it easily over his head. The soft cloth falls down his back like sea foam.

While Fr. Boylan pins to his left forearm the maniple—the first garment in the green of the liturgical season—I pick up the cincture, the vestment that gives me the most pleasure. The cincture is a white rope, cotton woven with silk, smooth and pliant. It is quite long, perhaps twenty feet, and whispers in my hands. I double it by joining the well-finished ends and coursing my hands down its twin length. It runs like white sand through my grip. I estimate two points along its length at which to grasp it, and wait. If I have done my job right, the lengths of cincture extending downward from my hands will be about equal, and my hands will be just far enough apart to fit the cincture halfway around Fr. Boylan’s waist.

As I work the cincture, Fr. Boylan dons the long, eight-inch-wide stole—the second Pentecostal green garment, first kissing its center, marked by a Maltese cross, and then placing it over his head and around his shoulders like a scarf. He crosses the stole in front and then runs his hands down its length on either side and brings them to his waistline, thumbs in and palms backward, toward me.

I step forward silently and place the cincture into his palms. His hands close around it and bring it forward, binding down the ends of the stole under it. The length of cincture I have left him is just right. He ties the cincture in front and adjusts it to hang down his right side.

He is nearly ready for mass. From the rear he looks mostly white, pinched at the waist, with the green of the stole at the back of his neck. From my angle I cannot see the matching green of the maniple on his arm.

The final garment is also green: the heavy, brocaded chasuble. It resembles the cloak of honor worn by musketeers—a long bolt of cloth with an opening for the head, worn to cover front and back, with open sides. He takes the chasuble, which has been accordion-folded from its last use, and throws its back half over his head. My job is to catch it, which I do, and to hold it out from his body while he crosses the thin ribbons attached to its front half behind him and draws them forward again for tying. While he ties this last of his three knots, I let the chasuble fall gently and step back.

Fr. Boylan takes up the gold chalice and the paten, a small gold plate on which the host will lie. He covers the paten and chalice with the chalice veil, a square of green brocade cloth, and the burse, also covered with cloth in the liturgical color. The burse is basically a pocket—two stiff squares of cardboard closed on three sides by the green cloth. Into the opening on the fourth side Fr. Boylan places the corporal, an ironed square of white linen folded first laterally and then longitudinally into thirds.

These are very sacred articles: When Fr. Boylan works the miracle by which the host will be changed into Christ’s body and the wine into His blood, these are the only vessels other than his hands that will be permitted to touch the host and the wine. At this part of the mass, the priest will spread the corporal like a tablecloth on top of the altar linens and place the paten and chalice in its center. The host will lie on the paten until the act of consecration. At that time, the priest will split the large host in half over the chalice and then break off and drop a small pie-shaped piece into the wine. After he has eaten the remainder of the host, bending low over the paten, he will carefully brush the surface of the paten into the chalice in case there are crumbs. There should be no crumbs because communion hosts are made to break cleanly, but the precaution is taken anyway. Similarly, when he drinks the wine, he will hold the corporal at the juncture of cup and lip. Afterwards, he will use the corporal to wipe his mouth and the inside and rim of the chalice. He will then refold the corporal and place it back inside the burse. No trace of host or wine, body or blood, will be left on the altar.

Fr. Boylan grips the chalice under the chalice veil, bows to the crucifix over the dressing table, and steps back. I move to the doorway between the vestiary and the sanctuary and Fr. Boylan steps behind me. A thick green curtain hangs in this doorway—not the green of Pentecost; it is the same curtain all year round. We wait a half moment behind the closed curtain. I grasp the bell pull to the right of the doorway.

When Fr. Boylan gives me the word I pull the bell cord to announce the beginning of mass, draw the curtain aside, and lead the way to the altar. We process (accent on the second syllable) to the center front and genuflect, beginning a mass that today is witnessed by Mrs. O’Reilly, the fire chief’s childless wife, the sole parishioner in attendance.

Nouns: Part Five—Nouns of a Different Stripe

In addition to the plain vanilla nouns we have covered so far—such as dog, hats, freedom, country, foolishness, Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln, step-sisters, Secretary of State, and Doctor Grammarius—there are other types that up the grammatical ante a bit. These include noun clauses and two sorts of nouns that are formed from verbs, and are therefore called verbals: infinitives and gerunds.

Noun clauses. A noun clause is a group of words that contains a verb and functions as a noun in a sentence. Consider these sentences:

I know that you stole those books from the library.

That cats are smarter than dogs is common knowledge.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

In the first sentence, the noun clause that you stole those books from the library is the direct object of the verb know. The sentence can be diagrammed in either of the following ways:

 Stole books


Stole books 2

In the second sentence, the noun clause that cats are smarter than dogs (are) is the subject of the verb is. The sentence can be diagrammed this way:

 cats smarter

The third sentence is, of course (God bless Jane Austen!), more complex and interesting. The subject of the sentence is, nominally, It. However, the word It functions, in grammatical terms, as an expletive—a word that serves as a filler (it comes from a Latin word meaning to fill up), just as there (as in There is a tavern in this town) serves as a filler, for the real (semantic) subject. In the tavern’s case, the underlying, simple sentence is A tavern is in this town.

In Jane Austen’s sentence, It and the semantic subject of the sentence (the long noun clause that stretches from that to wife) are in apposition. The sentence can be diagrammed this way:

Truth acknowledged 

As you can see, the noun clause is where subjects always are, and it is placed in apposition to the expletive It.

Some other notes on the diagram: I have construed the phrase in want as an adjective (here a predicate adjective after the linking verb must be) equivalent to the word needful. Similarly, I have interpreted the phrase in possession of as a single preposition equivalent to the word with.

The art of diagramming (an aside). Diagramming comprises a lot of skill and a bit of art, and that there are other ways that the details of this rich sentence might have been diagrammed. But any accurate diagram will show the related functions of all the words in the sentence; that is the point of a diagram. Once you get the hang of it, diagramming is not only very useful for analyzing the parts of a sentence, but fun as well.

To begin to diagram a sentence, you have to be able to identify (1) the main verb, which will describe the action that the sentence presents (whether that action is a genuine action, such as walk, run, hit, kick, go, sip, eat, talk, hold, rob, press, and the like, or a more mental or passive action, such as think, seem, be, believe, love, hate, trust, betray, analyze, and so on); (2) the subject or doer of the action (answering the question Who or what is performing the action?; and (3) the direct object or direct recipient (if any) of the action (answering the question: Who or what is getting acted upon?).

If the sentence has all three of these things and nothing else, we can easily fill in the slots in the main horizontal line of a sentence diagram:

 Sentences have verbs

But not every sentence has all three of these components, and many sentences have much more.

Let’s start in a minimalist way. Every proper sentence has a verb, called a predicate in grammatical terms, and this is all some sentences have, at least explicitly. For instance, the command Stop! is a complete, one-word sentence. The verb stop presents an action, and it turns out that this sole word is all we need to form a sentence.

But there is more to this one-word sentence, and we can ask another question to ferret it out; we can ask the subject question: Who is supposed to stop? And the answer to that question is contained in the mood (imperative) of the verb: Obviously, the person who is being addressed—an understood you—is who is supposed to stop. You (understood) is the subject of the sentence. This is usually indicated in a sentence diagram as either (X) or (You).


We can also ask the direct object question: Who or what is supposed to stop or get stopped?, but here we don’t get an easy answer. To figure out the direct object we need a specific context. For instance, if the sentence is spoken or written (as in a traffic sign) at a busy street intersection, the implied direct object may be you (or, more grammatically, yourself), or it may be walking, crossing, driving, or moving forward. If the sentence is spoken or written in another context, the direct object may refer to talking, arguing, touching, kissing, bothering, hitting, and so on. Because there is not always an unambiguous answer, we don’t usually fill in the direct object slot for this type of sentence with an understood word.

Here are a few other examples of noun clauses. If you want to try your hand at diagramming them, be my guest.

How I’m going to read all these books before the test is a complete mystery to me. [noun clause used as a subject]

I don’t understand how she puts up with him. [noun clause used as a direct object]

We need to have a long discussion about why you expect me to pay for all this. [noun clause used as the object of a preposition]

My fondest wish is that you will remember me with affection. [noun clause used as a predicate noun]

For more on sentence diagramming, I invite you to visit my friend and colleague Elizabeth O’Brien’s excellent website at If you plan to order one of Elizabeth’s books on the subject, please follow the link on my home page or click this link for “Sentence Diagramming Exercises” or this one for the “Sentence Diagramming Reference Manual.”

Additionally, this website ( offers a good variety of sample diagrams.

Infinitives. Something magical happens when you insert the word to before a verb: The verb becomes a noun. Thus, the verb entertain, as in “The performers will entertain the audience with a medley of popular favorites” can be made into a noun very easily to serve another context, as in “The performers would like to entertain you.”  In the first sentence, the word entertain is the main (and only) verb in the sentence, serving as its predicate. The sentence can be diagrammed like this:

 Performers entertain

In the second sentence, the infinitive to entertain is not a verb (that honor goes to would like), but a noun, the direct object of would like. Here is the usual way to diagram this sentence:

 Performers would like

Two observations about infinitives. First, there is a lot of mythology about a supposed rule that forbids careful users of English to split infinitives, i.e., to place any word or phrase at all between the to and the plain form of the verb. Examples of split infinitives are:

I have to always check the time.

I promised myself to never eat between meals.

Can you manage to some way or another finish this job by 4 p.m.?

The prohibition against splitting infinitives is imaginary. If you don’t like to split them, try to find a way around it without sounding stilted. If you don’t care, split them at will. If you are a careful writer, choose the wording that sounds best and truest to your ear.

In some cases, it would be hard to avoid splitting the infinitive. Consider this sentence from The Wall Street Journal (online U.S. edition, February 28, 2011):

China plans to more than double the value of its entertainment and other cultural industries to nearly three trillion yuan, or roughly $460 billion, within the next five years….

It’s futile to struggle to pry the more than from the jaws of the infinitive to double. Why even try?

Second, it is worth noting here that the subject of an infinitive is in the objective case, not the nominative case. This means that I want him to take the fall for me is of course correct, and I want he to take the fall for me is of course incorrect.

Remember this when we discuss pronouns (which in English are pretty much the only words that show genuine case markings). Recalling that both the subject and object of an infinitive are in the objective case will prevent many a malapropism, such as a sentence that I recently overheard: “They asked he and I to come to the party on Saturday.” Whether you construe the pronouns as the direct objects of asked, the indirect objects of asked, or (as I do) the subjects of the infinitive to come, the case that those pronouns ought to show is the same: objective. Here is the diagram of the corrected sentence:

 Saturday party

Here are a few more examples of infinitives in common use:

To know him is to love him. (Or: To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him.)

To cease loving London is to cease loving life.

To be is to do.

To be or not to be, that is the question.

To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow. (Nah, only kidding.)

To live is to die.

Gerunds. Gerunds are produced by another grammatical magic trick: Adding an -ing to a verb can produce a noun. If it does, such a noun is called a gerund. (If the same trick produces an adjective, the resulting -ing word is called a participle.)

Thus, in the sentence I love swimming in the ocean, the word swimming is a gerund, because it serves as the direct object of the verb love. By contrast, in the sentence I saw a dolphin swimming in the ocean, swimming is a participle (more precisely, a present participle—to distinguish it from a past participle, which for the verb swim would be swum) because it modifies the noun dolphin.

The diagrams of these sentences tell the story, depicting in the first sentence the gerund in the direct object slot, but on a stilt elevated above the main horizontal line, and the participle in the second sentence on a slanted (modifier) line below the direct object dolphin:

 Love swimming

Dolphin swimming

 Here are a few more examples of gerunds in action:

Seeing is believing.

Breaking up is hard to do.

I can’t help falling in love with you.

Living without you is unimaginable.

I’m terrified of dying alone.

Diagramming sentences puts hair on your chest.

Conclusion. Noun phrases, infinitives, and gerunds are actually rather cool sentence components, greatly expanding the flexibility and reach of our language (and very many other languages). Learning to recognize them whenever you hear them is a skill. You may be surprised at how often they show up. For instance, the two immediately preceding sentences right here in this paragraph both contain a noun clause, the first one (“Learning…”) used as the subject of the sentence, and the second one (“how often…”) as the object of a preposition.

Nouns: Part Four—Possession

Compared to the morphological changes in nouns occasioned by the conventions of pluralization, those used to indicate possession are slight. Basically, all you need to know is this:

  • Use an apostrophe + s to indicate possession for singular nouns, whatever letter they end in. For example, the boy’s hat, Jack’s house, Amos’s brother, James’s book, mother’s coat, my cousin’s car, the class’s picture, McDonald’s farm, and your dog’s tail are all properly formed singular possessives.
  • Also use an apostrophe + s to indicate possession for plural nouns that do not end in s. For example, the children’s playroom, the women’s occupations, the men’s club, and the alumni’s annual gift are all properly formed plural possessives.
  • Use an apostrophe (only) to indicate possession for plural nouns that end in s. Thus, my sisters’ husbands, the Joneses’ house, the dogs’ houses, the families’ get-togethers, the Democrats’ ideas, the Republicans’ policies, the politicians’ excuses, and the presidents’ spouses are all properly formed plural possessives.
  • Use the of construction, in general, if the possessor is not a person or persons. It is usually better to indicate that a thing is the possessor by inverting the order of the two nouns and using the preposition of to link them. For example, the Speaker of the House, the agenda of the meeting, the purpose of the committee, the words of the speech, the rooms of the castle, the heroes of the country, and the women of the Senate are all properly formed impersonal possessives. The inflected form, using an apostrophe, would sound awkward in these instances: the House’s Speaker, the meeting’s agenda, and so on.

A choice. We often have two options for expressing possession, at least technically. We can use inflection, forcing ourselves to work out the proper use of the apostrophe, and write, for example:

John found Alicia’s pen in the baby’s room.

John found Alicia’s pen in the babies’ room.

John found Liza’s and Alicia’s pens in the children’s room.

John found his sisters’ pens in the children’s room.

Alternatively, we can use the second possessive construction, the of construction, and duck the issue of apostrophes altogether. Unfortunately, the result usually sounds less than natural to an English speaker:

John found the pen of Alicia in the room of the baby.

John found the pen of Alicia in the room of the babies.

John found the pens of Liza and Alicia in the room of the children.

John found the pens of his sisters in the room of the children.

All of these sentences sound odd in English, vaguely Martian or robotic, even though the equivalent construction is the perfectly correct and natural way to indicate possession in French and Spanish (and many other languages, for that matter). For instance:

Jean a trouvé le stylo d’Alicia dans la chambre du bébé. (or la chambre des bébés)

Juan ha encontrado la pluma de Alicia en el cuarto del bebé. (or el cuarto de los bebés)

In English, the more appropriate use of the of construction is with impersonal nouns, as in:

We seem to be doing everything in our power to ensure the collapse of the economy.

Here, it is the apostrophe construction (the economy’s collapse) that sounds odd, even though it is acceptable English. The problem with this construction is that it seems to personify the economy, and in the mundane context of a discussion of economic matters, personification seems to be a bit too much of a stretch toward the poetic.

The following examples from news reports use a bit of personification in attributing ownership of various things to a war, poverty, and Ohio.

The Iraqi War’s grim toll in blood and tears will haunt its victims—on both sides—long after some form of peace has been declared.

Poverty’s grip continues to squeeze Ohio’s Appalachian counties.

These sentences are matters of judgment. In the first, the personification of the war is difficult to remove from the sentence without damaging its rhythm, and furthermore, the verb haunts and the phrase its victims reinforce the personification. The more prosaically worded sentence (The grim toll of the Iraqi War in blood and tears will haunt victims on both sides long after some form of peace has been declared) may not be as effective. Here it is wisest to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and allow him or her to engage in the familiar trope of personifying War.

The second sentence, in my opinion, can be de-personified without losing any of its effect: The grip of poverty continues to squeeze the Appalachian counties of Ohio. I think we can retain the implied personification and vividness of grip and squeeze while hewing to the more standard of construction.